Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Where We Live

The factors, and in most cases, the constraints that determine where we live are varied and diverse. Yesterday, Tejumola Olaniyan spoke at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at The University of WIsconsin, Madison, about imagining a cultural biography of the African postcolonial nation-state through "the cultural forms that help people cope with a bewildering modernity".

One of the things he paid attention to was what he terms "urban garrison architecture"'; the aesthetics and politics of the ways in which the upper classes in Africa sequester themselves from crime, class difference, and the elements. High walls with shards of glass, endless ringlets of barbed wire, spikes and stones, all together seem to form an aesthetic of both separation and sequestration that testify to both the failures of the state, and the consumptive tendencies of an individualist, and capitalist hypermodernity. The condition of Africa, as many later suggested is not unique. Urbanity world over is tending to a similarity of form.

From a BBC documentary on South Africa's security islands

The entrance to Cottonwood, a small private estate in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, close to Dainfern.

Barbed wire in Johannesburg

From the website Inspiring Cities, a post titled "Walls of Incompetence"; as the author Hans Karssenberg states, "No need for urban regeneration, build a wall instead".

Gated community in Plano, Texas near Dallas; photo by Dean Terry

Favela de Paraisopolis and the gated communities of Morumbi, photo Tuca Vieira, courtesy Urban Age, London School of Economics

The list is endless and the favorite set of cities in here is generally some combination of Johanessburg, Sao Paolo, Mumbai, Shanghai, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and some. They are often held up as the sharp, large, and monstrous indicators of the central forms of "lack" that distinguish urban society; lack of security, lack of order, lack of equality, lack of statehood, but most of all, the lack of civility underlying what Olaniyan called these "fortresses in the middle of the city".

I am not going to belabor the point, but I do have a question. If most of the world's urbanity lives in conditions of segregation running the spectrum from marginalization to outright segregation, what is the imaginary, ideal, city against which we hold up this lack? What forms of imagination other than social justice can we employ to imagine a different city?

(On an aside, how lovingly have these photographs been taken! I am, despite my vociferous dislike for gated communities, almost seduced by the pictures. Also, feminist science-fiction work is particularly fond of this setting; see Octavia Butler's "Parable of the Sower" and Margaret Atwood's "Oryx and Crake").